April 18, 2016
By Matt Straw
Fatheads, shiners, tough bites, and peanuts. What do they have in common? After a large meal, people may refuse seconds, but rarely leave a single peanut around for long. Walleyes can relate.
Last year it rained all summer in central Minnesota. Mushrooms sprouted as never before, while flooded shorelines and high lake levels produced amazing hatches of shoreline-oriented baitfish. They were small, but so plentiful walleyes simply opened and closed their mouths to eat. It was hard for anglers to compete with this glut of bait.
To catch walleyes, we had to abandon almost everything that worked the year before. People who in 2013 proclaimed, "I'll never use livebait again" filled their baitwells with minnows last year.
Crankbaits offer two ways to compete with a glut: Go big to trigger emotive or territorial responses, or downsize. No matter how full they are, walleyes may find room for a peanut. When walleyes can only find small prey including young-of-year perch, fathead minnows, and emerald shiners, they're likely to ignore large cranks. But abundant forage isn't the only reason to go small.
Each season typically brings changes in the forage base. Seasoned veterans like walleye pro Tommy Skarlis consider lures of all sizes when the bite turns tough. He carries cranks of all sizes all the time (try wedging a peanut into one of his storage compartments). "Even sissy cranks," he laughs. "A sissy crank is a #4 Berkley Flicker Shad, Rapala Shad Rap, or Salmo Hornet. It isn't just about matching the hatch. Sissy cranks rule in a lot of situations, but in order to throw one you need a fairy wand."
Skarlis casts crankbaits for walleyes when most pros are doing other things. "When casting bigger cranks, like a #7 Flicker Shad, #6 Salmo Hornet, or 300 Series Bandit, I use a baitcaster," he says. "Heavier lures demand heavier tackle if you're casting for distance. A bass-type approach works for walleyes in many situations."
Distance means depth. The farther a diving crankbait gets from the rod tip, the deeper it can dive. Thinner line means greater depth, too. In the book "Precision Trolling," Mark Romanack, Dr. Steven Holt, and Tom Irwin chart the diving depths of many crankbaits. Their data demonstrate that divers run deeper on 10-pound braid than on 10-pound mono. Braid is thinner and provides less resistance as the lure pulls it down through the water column.
The book charts the #4 Salmo Hornet mentioned by Skarlis, noting that it reaches a maximum depth of 12 feet on mono, but dives to over 15 feet on braid. Those depths are achieved 150 feet behind the boat. But at a typical casting distance of 50 feet (remember — it's a little crank), a #4 Hornet gets down 9 feet. Get it out another 20 feet and it reaches 10 feet on mono, 12 on braid. Every crankbait gets deeper when trolled because retrieves keep pulling it closer and shallower.
"Getting crankbaits deeper requires balanced tackle," Skarlis says. "To get maximum distance with a Rapala DT14, for instance, you need to match that large, heavy bait to your rod, reel, and line. The weight of a big lure bends the tip of a light or medium-light rod way down, demonstrating that it's overmatched. I use a 7-foot St. Croix Legend Xtreme XS70M or MH with bigger cranks around wing dams, fast-tapering breaks outside weededges, riprap, or anywhere I need a heavy, big-billed bait to get down fast and deep. Heavier baits call for heavier tackle with 10-pound or heavier line."
But sissy cranks demand fairy wands. "Most people in your profession write about bass fishing," Skarlis says. (I plead guilty on behalf of my profession.) "Fairy wand is a term given to light sticks by bass pros. They could learn a lot from the fairy-wand crowd but they seem reluctant. Gerald Swindle, Gary Yamamoto, Aaron Martens, and others routinely use spinning rods in tournaments, but most bass pros ignore the success stories.
"A small crankbait is overpowered by a heavy rod," Skarlis says. "If the weight of the lure can't bend the tip even a little, the cast has no snap. The light lure can't overcome the friction caused by thick line going through the guides."
He casts light cranks with a 7-foot St. Croix Legend Extreme or a 7-foot St. Croix Eyecon. "Both have medium power and fast action," he says. "Both are durable in tournament situations. I might switch to a medium-light power sometimes, but I want to use at least 8-pound mono like Berkley Trilene XL on a high-capacity spinning reel. Big walleyes have sharp gill rakers and they thrash about. You need thicker line and shock resistance so a medium-power rod typically provides the best balance when making long casts with light lures. I want a bigger reel, like the Abu Garcia Orca S15 or Pfluegar Patriarch 30 — something with a large line capacity, which boosts casting distance."
Delivering light lures requires smooth line. "I like Berkley's new IronSilk in 8- to 10-pound test. If it gets a little coiled you can stretch it back into shape. It's limp like Trilene XL, but more abrasion resistant. It comes off the spool smoothly and offers stretch. But if you want maximum distance with a sissy crank, spool with 8- to 10-pound Berkley Nanofil."
Nanofil is a uniquely slick line that flies off a spinning reel. It's so slick, it requires different knots. "I use a double Palomar or a double Trilene knot with 10 wraps," Skarlis says. "The nice thing about modern cranks is how aerodynamic they are. When you pull out crankbaits from 20 years ago, you're immediately disappointed by the way they windmill through the air and drop 20 feet short of the distance you're used to getting. Today's designs have weight-transfer systems that keep them from spinning out of control."
"You need little cranks on shallow, rocky shorelines where the bait's in 2 to 4 feet of water or you're fishing parallel to cover in shallow water. A shallow runner with a tight wobble works well around trees in the Dakotas or in Wisconsin. In flooded timber, the most active walleyes relate to the tops of trees. They're only 2 to 3 feet down in most cases. I know it seems crazy, but I use light tackle there because it's more efficient. You're trying to bring a crankbait across the tops of those trees where they've been broken off by ice in winter. Trolling won't work. Heavy casting gear won't work, either. It's more efficient to cast light lures a long way and cover water."
In those situations, I use rods that are fast but light. After all, walleyes aren't salmon. Landing a 10-pounder with light or medium-light tackle and 4-pound line isn't that tough. It doesn't wear out the fish and it's fun. For several years I've used the 8-foot St. Croix Avid AVS 80MLM2 and the G. Loomis GLX TSR 791 spooled with 4-pound FireLine to cast Bomber 5As, #4 Rapala Shad Raps, Reef Runner 200 Series Rip Shads, and other sissy cranks way out there for walleyes.
Late last spring, when walleyes probed shallow to hunt massive inshore hatches of perch and small baitfish, we caught good numbers of fish with sissy cranks. On massive lakes like Mille Lacs and Winnibigoshish, it was the best program most days. Small natural lakes, in contrast, tend to have dense weedlines where big walleyes can bury, making it easy to snap lighter lines. Many shorelines of big lakes have no weeds or sparse growth, thanks to wind action and ice heaves. With only rock and sand to worry about, let the fish take line.
Elephants eat peanuts, yet most walleye anglers fail to feed them any. Some folks may head out and buy a box of light baits. But they don't fish well without the right tackle. Get rigged up and you outscore more tradition-minded anglers. When forage is small in spring, when water is high in summer, walleyes focus on small baitfish.
"The Salmo Sting is the unspoken hero for fishing over vegetation," Skarlis says. "It casts like a bullet. Active walleyes hold in the tops of the plants and the Sting stays up where they can see it. And it covers water fast. Match it with light spinning tackle and you're in business."
Today's thin braids outcast everything. The new 8-carriers are amazing, incorporating 8 microfibers per strand to create a smooth, round surface and a thinner product. Where we were using 4-pound Berkley FireLine (.13 mm diameter), we can upgrade to 10-pound Seaguar Smackdown (.128 mm diameter) for longer casts and better lure action. Not only thinner and stronger, 8-carriers are limper, more abrasion-resistant, and provide maximum sensitivity.
"FireLine is still my first choice," Skarlis says. "Light cranks don't pull line off the spool the same way. Sometimes braid doesn't pack right and comes off in a ball." FireLine remains a great choice because the coating is knot-friendly, but new 8-carriers like Maxima Ultragreen Braid, TUF Line Tournament 8, and PowerPro Super 8 Slick cast sissy cranks straighter and farther. Try to cast downwind and make contact with bottom as much as possible to keep line packed on tight.
These lines take little Reef Runner Rip Shads and Lindy River Rockers down to the tops of boulders in the shallow zone where behemoth walleyes feed on wind-blown reefs. Big walleyes take advantage of baitfish in wind-driven rips there, where few anglers hunt. The new lines cut through wind and current to keep a lure running straight and provide an accurate assessment of where it is in space and time.
Active walleyes often feed in the 4- to 8-foot zone from early spring into summer, and all summer and fall in rivers. Most of the sissy cranks mentioned in this article can be cast far enough to crack rocks at 8 feet with thin 8-carrier braids and fairy wands. Use a medium-sized spinning reel with a full spool to achieve maximum casting distance and running depth. Skarlis ties direct or uses a small Berkley Cross-Lok snap. I tie in a 3-foot, 6- to 8-pound Raven Fluorocarbon leader with back-to-back uni knots, then tie on a Cross-Lok Snap.
"Experiment with different ratio reels," he recommends. "Sometimes a slower or faster model can boost your catch dramatically." There's a delicate balance among lures, tackle, and walleye attitude. Tip the odds in your direction and results are remarkable because, at times, elephants eat peanuts.